Exile on main street: urban centres hard hit by out-of-town shopping magnets
Rates revenue has proven irresistible for local authorities when it comes to retail development
Dundrum shopping centre. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
There is no doubt that the vitality of Irish towns has been hard hit by the development of retail giants on their outskirts.
With acres of free car parking they compete with urban centres where cash-strapped local authorities seek to boost their shrinking revenues by imposing steep parking charges.
According to Nightmare on Every Street: Town Centres, Car Parking and Smart Travel, a report by RGData, which represents 4,000 independently owned shops, this phenomenon “is directly causing business closures, job losses and the death of vibrant town centres in Ireland”.
Several towns are on their knees due to ruthless competition from alternative shopping centres, usually with predatory multiples as “anchors”. Who can doubt, for example, that Dún Laoghaire’s main street was dealt a severe blow by the development of the Dundrum Town Centre?
Free parking at out-of-town centres is an open invitation to car-borne shoppers to abandon main streets. As An Taisce has noted, “Ireland is one of the world’s most car-dependent nations, so the ease of parking one’s car has a considerable influence on where to shop”.
It is lobbying for the introduction of a levy of 40 to 50 cent per hour on all free out-of-town retail parking, with the revenue split between local authorities (40 per cent), central government (45 per cent) and the rest retained by the owners to fund “sustainable travel” initiatives.
‘Uneven playing field’
“Such a levy goes some way towards levelling what is currently a very uneven playing field,”said An Taisce policy director James Nix.
He cites the plastic bag levy as a precedent for environmental charges, saying he believed that constitutional issues should not arise.
“Cheap parking makes it exceptionally difficult to entice motorists to make the shift to public transport, cycling, etc. The viability of many current initiatives including new green routes, bus priority measures, and bus and cycling infrastructure is threatened as a result.”
This shouldn’t be happening, of course. Not only is the Government’s Smarter Travel policy (2009) opposed to new shopping centres in out-of-town locations, other than in exceptional circumstances, but the latest Retail Planning Guidelines (2012) take the same line.
Developers have also had their cards marked by the Department of the Environment’s Retail Design Manual, published last April, which shows how to integrate new retail schemes into historic cities and towns, highlighting successful examples in Ireland and elsewhere.
Among the exemplary schemes cited by its authors is Athlone Towncentre, with a “diverse mix of uses”, including apartments and townhouses, restaurants and cafes, creche, primary healthcare facility and an 11-storey hotel “heralding the commercial centre of town”.
The development, designed by Murray O’Laoire Architects, “has provided significant opportunities for large multiples to enter Athlone, through provision of four major department store anchor units, and has acted as a catalyst for further investment in the town”, it says.
Right on the edge of Athlone, however, two local developers, Donie Kenny and John O’Meara, are trying to get planning permission for a new “district centre” at Bogganfin, Co Roscommon. It would include an Aldi supermarket with a gross floor area of 1,535sq m (16,522sq ft).
Roscommon County Council refused planning permission, as there is no provision in its retail planning policy for a district centre at this location, between the N6 and N61 national routes. It is now under appeal to An Bord Pleanála, with a decision due by November 21st.
Aldi Stores (Ireland), usually represented by planning consultants John Spain Associates, had a similar scheme turned down for Cashel, Co Tipperary, because it “would be excessively reliant on private car transportation and would necessitate unsustainable travel patterns”.
Objectors usually include RGData itself, seeking to defend existing shops against an “invasion” by the multiples, and also – on occasion – rival supermarket chains. On the other side, promoters claim that new outlets will promote competition and cut food prices.
There has also been a tendency among local authorities to facilitate retail development wherever possible, not least because of the rates revenue it generates. Limerick is the most visible victim – a city ringed by suburban shopping centres, approved by adjoining councils.
What is different now is that not only are Limerick city and county councils being merged into a single administrative unit, but all developers and planning authorities must heed the retail planning guidelines and its design manual in choosing the right sites.